Blake T. Ostler on the writings of John

To gain a little better understanding of LDS belief on John’s Gospel, I have been reading a series of articles in The Testimony of John the Beloved (SLC: Deseret, 1998).

You can tell that Blake has spent some time scrutinizing the Gospel and the Epistles of John.  I don’t know how Blake might nuance his interpretation today, but almost ten years ago he introduces his topic by saying,

“John’s message is expressed in terms pregnant with meaning and loaded with theological importance.  Cloaked within the layers of meaning of the key terms in the writings attributed to John is the doctrine of grace, which lies at the heart of the Gospel and the Epistles of John.  There, at the core of these multiple layers, we find a dynamic gospel of growth from one grace to another, from seeing to believing, from believing to obedient perseverance, from obedience to love, from love to knowledge, from knowledge to unity in Christ, and from union to deification and eternal life” (201).

His short article is broken into six, precise sections—Christ as the Gift, The Gift of Sight, Faithful Belief, Abiding in Grace, Knowing God, and Loving Union—followed by a conclusion. 

Because I am covering John 3:16-17 this Sunday in our church fellowship, I am intrigued by Blake’s message on John 3 to the LDS community in the Idaho/Utah I-15 corridor.

He teaches, 

“The life of Christ is a grace, a gift given to us by the Father out of his love for us:  ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”  (John 3:16).  The focal point to understanding John’s view of grace is the recognition that not only has the Father given his Son but also Christ has offered himself, his very life, as a gift to us.  There is nothing we must do, indeed nothing we could ever do, that would merit this gift.  Indeed, if we tried to earn this gift by our good works, we would forever fall short of meriting the value of Christ’s life given for us.  In the end we would show only that we have misunderstood that Christ offered himself to us and for us out of love that knows no bounds and imposes no prior conditions” (202).

 

Excellent words.

 

Blake drives the nail home at the end of this section on “Christ as the Gift” by concluding,

“The Greek verb didonai, ‘to give,’ is used throughout the Gospel of John to refer to the gracious gifts of the gospel, such as living water ‘given’ by Christ to the Samaritan woman (John 4:10), the bread of life that Jesus ‘gave’ to the multitude (John 6:31), God’s word and commandments ‘given’ by Jesus to his disciples (see John 13:34).  And again I emphasize, Christ himself is the unmerited gift offered out of sheer love without any prior conditions.  Christ is the living water, he is the bread of life, he is the Word of God given as a sheer grace and unmerited gift to save us” (203).

 

Let me quote for you the entirety of his section on “Faithful Belief”:

Although there are no conditions to God’s love for us, we must accept the gift he has so graciously offered if we hope to have eternal life.  “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27).  We can’t receive unless God gives; however, we must receive the gift of God through believing.  Believing is much more than just an intellectual acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ.  The Greek verb “to believe” (pisteuein) occurs in one form or another in the Gospel of John 98 times and in the Epistles another 9 times.  This verb always means faithfulness as a dynamic act of accepting that is manifested in behavior.  The verb form of “to believe” is the same root in Greek as the word for “faith” (pistis) [I adjusted what I believe to be a transliteration error in spelling]; however, the noun for “faith,” pistis, never occurs in either the Gospel or the Epistles of John.  John’s preference for verbs shows his emphasis upon the active and dynamic nature of faithful belief.  Such believing means faithfulness to God in the same way that a husband is faithful to his wife.  The meaning is one of interpersonal commitment manifested in one’s entire life and activity rather than merely an acceptance of cognitive content.  “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life [Greek, zoe aionios]:  and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).  Those who do not believe in this sense are condemned because “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  John’s record uses a verb form “to do the truth,” which is awkward in English, but it expresses well the meaning of the active and interpersonal sense of “faithful believing”: “He that doeth the truth cometh to the light” (John 3:21).  One does the truth by being faithful to the loving relationship which saves us.  As Raymond Brown commented:

“Thus, pisteuein eis [again I corrected what I thought to be a transliteration error in spelling in the quote] [‘belief in’] may be defined in terms of an active commitment to a person and, in particular, to Jesus.  It involves much more than trust in Jesus or confidence in him; it is an acceptance of Jesus and of what he claims to be and a dedication of one’s life to him.  The commitment is not emotional but involves a willingness to respond to God’s demands as they are presented in and by Jesus (see I John 3:23).  This is why there is no conflict in John between the primacy of faith and the importance of good works.  To have faith in Jesus whom God sent is the work demanded by God (see John 6:29), for to have faith implies that one will abide in the word and commands of Jesus (John 8:31; I John 5:10).”

 

I would like to make three quick comments about this section.  (1)  Blake has done a nice job in stripping away the notions that efficacious belief is only a shallow “easy believism”, a harmful, delusional aspect being proposed in some circles of American evangelicalism.  (2)  As a small correction to his comment, “the noun for ‘faith,’ pistis, never occurs in either the Gospel or the Epistles of John,” I would remind Blake of I John 5:4.  (3)  And last of all, the questions I would pose for both Raymond Brown and Blake are “what are the ‘commands of Jesus’?”  And do these commands eliminate justification by faith alone?

 

The last section “Loving Union” reveals our greatest theological differences with one another.  Blake,  extrapolating from John 6:38, 14:10, 17, 17:11, 21-23, and I John 3:1-3, writes,

“By becoming one, Christ ‘gives’ us the same glory that he had with the Father before the world was.  By becoming united as one in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, we have ‘eternal life’ and participate in the very kind of existence that God enjoys. . . . We come to know God in the sense that we become just as God is.  Thus, just as a son becomes what his father is, so we become sons [and daughters] of God by intimate knowledge. . . . The culmination of God’s grace received through living faith is thus to be like God.  All of the elements of John’s view of grace come together here.  We come to know God.  Such knowledge gives us sight to see God as he truly is.  We are recognized as God’s children who grow to resemble their parent.  We become pure or sanctified, just as our Father is pure and sanctified.  We become as God is through grace.  Thus, although we forever remain distinct individuals, we become one ‘in’ the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (see John 17:21). . . . The culmination of grace in John’s writings is deification of Christ’s true disciples and complete unity with the Godhead” (209-210).

 

Blakes’ logic flows smoothly with the biblical texts that he has recited.  But there is one small problem.  John 3:16 is not in a vacuum.  In fact, it is a subpoint within the greater parameters of defining who Jesus is (a species quite unique from us) and the work that He came to do.  How can LDS deification be the “culmination of grace in John’s writings” when Jesus and John the Baptist are contrasted with one another at the very beginning of John’s Gospel as different species altogether.  One came from heaven (John 3:13).  The other did not.  One, always existing (John 1:1), was sent from God into the world (John 3:17).  The other, who came into existence (John 1:6), was sent from God but not with the last three words attached, into the world.  Do you see the difference between the two in the first three chapters of John’s Gospel.  I am only getting started in studying and teaching this marvelous gospel in Idaho Falls.  I have much to learn.  But it should be understood—there is oneness between God and Christ’s disciples where we are able by His grace (and we must be, as this is our salvation, our joyous hope, confident expectation) but not in the categories where there is infinite difference between us and our Creator.  John the Baptist recognized that only in the Man, Jesus Christ, was the unique, preexistent One, the revelatory Son of man.  John the Baptists’ faith in such truth about Christ became the main impetus for his bold proclamation to other men and his humble worship before the Savior.  So before I jump into solid agreement with Blake on the nature of faith, we should still be in the initial discussion over the nature of the object of our faith.

10 comments

  1. I’ve heard this kind of argument before and I wondered then and now why anyone would want to engage in it. The similarities of belief in Christ are probably a better focus between the different believers in Christ and His Atonement. If in the end Mormons find out that they do not progress as far as they thought, I’m sure they will be happy to receive all God has to give them anyway. If in the end other Christians find out that God really will through Christ share his fullness with us, I’m sure that will be a happy surprise.

    A better focus might be to focus on the prayers he offered to his Father in front of his disciples . . . “make them one with me as I am one with thee . . . ” I’m sure you know that repentance, grace, answering of prayers . . . etc. happen in the Mormon church, the Catholic church, protestant churches and anywhere someone honestly calls for help to follow God better. Undoubtedly we are all messing up on exactly how that works or on the exact character and nature of God, but I do believe that His grace is present to all who honestly seek it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that even though one is right and one is wrong (or probably better said one is righter and one is wronger), I believe that God will work with both and help them both and offer grace by grace to both.

  2. Todd: your post here is very good: both in the areas of agreement,which are many, and disagreement , which are few but equally important.

    This was two years ago…..any important updates and amendments ??

    GERMIT

  3. John, I would imagine that more and more of the evangelical movement in America will empathize and even embrace exactly what you are saying.

    In today’s climate, a man or woman can flat out reject the oneness of the Son with the Father, and still be labelled a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet this is one of the main thrusts of the whole book!

    Sadly, John’s Gospel is not much of an authority for Christians in America anymore. John’s Gospel has turned into the marketplace buffet table. Pick and choose what you feel and desire and discard the rest.

    Here are a couple concerns:

    1) How can we use the Lord’s climactic, magnificent High Priestly prayer in John 17 to eliminate distinctions between creature and Creator and willfully ignore all the other powerful indicators in the Gospel declaring the uniqueness of Christ? Believers are branches (John 15). They will either bear fruit or be burned. Jesus is the eternal, living Vine. Jesus does not need the “grace by grace” – hence, this shows a thunderous uniqueness of being, John.

    2) How can American biblical scholarship attribute the exclusive way of salvation through Christ to the Father as just the imaginations of followers of Jesus? They would claim that Jesus did not teach what his disciples maintained and that He actually promoted universalism – each able to come and worship God in his own way.

    But thinking what Jesus says in this explosive book, universalism is simply not true. One worships God in Spirit and in Truth.

    And by the way, welcome John to HI4LDS.

  4. Germit, the thread of John’s Gospel started at the beginning of this blog history, runs through the two and half years, and it will probably continue for the next couple of years.

    Perhaps sometime, I could do a post connecting past key HI4LDS posts that show how the Gospel, straight and simple, intrudes and disrupts standard LDS paradigms.

  5. thanks, I had never rummaged thru the archives enough to know that this theme had such a long history….in more ways than one.

    blessings on your persevering head
    GERMIT

  6. “If in the end Mormons find out that they do not progress as far as they thought, I’m sure they will be happy to receive all God has to give them anyway. If in the end other Christians find out that God really will through Christ share his fullness with us, I’m sure that will be a happy surprise.”

    Nicely put John.

  7. Seth, where in the Bible does God say?

    “You won’t know for sure, Todd Wood in Ammon, Idaho, just how you are and will be in your relationship with Me. You will just have to wait and find out. Hopefully, you will be pleasantly surprised that you obtain fullness in the end.”

  8. I’d agree with Todd in that it’s (to me at least) presumptious to think that the fall out from our differing theologies is just a sorting out of the goodies later. Maybe that’s all there is to it, but I think this may be willfully naive. A lot more could be at stake.

    The course of our life, here and there, is set by WHO GOD is.

    GERMIT

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